OTTAWA – It sounds like the start of a joke.
So the prime minister of Canada and his wife and three former prime ministers get on a 30-year-old plane with two former governors general, four provincial or territorial premiers, the head of the Assembly of First Nations and the leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.
However it was no joke Monday — just standard operating procedure — when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s aging Airbus A310 touched down at Air Force Base Waterkloof, just outside Pretoria, South Africa.
The Canadian delegation for the memorials for South African icon Nelson Mandela includes an impressive list of past and current leaders.
Aboard Harper’s 18-hour flight were former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean, Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski and the Northwest Territories’ Bob McLeod.
Tom Mulcair of the NDP was there, as were Shawn Atleo, AFN national chief, several MPs and a senator.
Harper also provided a lift to three of his predecessors: Jean Chretien, Kim Campbell and Brian Mulroney (while Joe Clark arrived by his own means).
This might seem like simply an efficient way to travel to a distant land.
After all, the Government of Canada’s travel policy recommends that “ministers should make every effort to ensure joint travel in the interests of efficient use of government resources.”
The same policy includes an important caveat: “However, for security purposes, no more than eight ministers of the Crown may travel on the same aircraft at the same time.”
In the United States, the president and vice-president never travel in the same plane, helicopter or armoured limousine. On inauguration day, a single senior government official is always secured away from Washington in case of an attack.
Such precautions are not the stuff of Cold War paranoia.
In April 2010, the president of Poland and his wife died in a plane crash with 95 others, including top Polish political, military and bank officials.
A number of large corporations have had travel policies designed to protect succession in the event of disaster ever since a 1987 plane crash that killed Chevron USA’s president and three top managers, along with three Pacific Bell officials.
Putting so much of Canada’s past, current and future political capital on a single flight to South Africa might seem like a risky proposition.
It can seem even dodgier when the aircraft in question was built when ashtrays in the armrests seemed like a good idea and a one-kilogram commercial computer was considered a revelation.
The prime minister’s jet is a 1987 vintage Airbus, originally owned by Wardair and bought by the government in 1992 for $53 million, then retrofitted with a modest private office, sleeping area and tiny shower.
It was one of five Wardair Airbus A310s picked up by DND and all are still in service.
There are 12 engines among the fleet of five jets, allowing them to be rotated and refurbished on a regular basis. The military spends 25 hours of maintenance for every hour flown on an Airbus.
While the planes may be old, they have far fewer hours and landings on them than a commercial aircraft of similar vintage.
“The general consensus is it’s in really excellent condition and good for many more years of service,” Major Jim Hutcheson said in a 2010 interview regarding the prime minister’s plane.
The aircraft’s estimated retirement date is 2026, although that likely could be extended with additional resources, according to the military.
But RCAF 001, as the prime minister’s plane is known, doesn’t just have a lot of history, it has baggage.
Earlier this year the government spent an extra $50,000 giving the jet a bright new paint job that just happens to mirror Conservative party colours.
“The colours of the plane, the whole detailing is clearly patterned on the Conservative party,” the NDP’s Mulcair complained last June.
“I can tell you this, that when we form government in 2015 we will not be painting that plane orange.”
It was but a quibble compared to the plane’s past.
Sometime overnight Sunday, Mulroney and Chretien were photographed seated together on the “flying Taj Mahal,” an historic first.
After Mulroney’s Conservative government bought the plane in 1992, Chretien, in Liberal opposition, labelled the jet an excessive “flying Taj Mahal” — making the aircraft so politically toxic that neither Mulroney nor Chretien used it for the next 10 years.